Examining Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Cornerback – Has Pittsburgh Done Enough?

It wasn’t long ago that the Steelers appeared to have things locked down at the cornerback position, so to speak. For a short spell, Joe Haden and Steven Nelson were good-to-great starters on the outside, while Mike Hilton was one of the best slot corners in the NFL.

  • But free agency, the constraints of the salary cap and age quickly changed that.

Mike Hilton was the first to leave, as he signed a deal with the Bengals at the onset of the 2021 free-agency period. Not long after that, Nelson was released due to the salary cap hell the Steelers found themselves in last spring.

Joe Haden was the only one left from that accomplished trio. But as of this writing, it appears that the Steelers have officially moved on from Haden, 33, who is an unrestricted free agent and has yet to sign with Pittsburgh or anyone else.

Justin Layne, Steelers vs Cardinals

Justin Layne’s early NFL action against the Cardinals in 2019. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Before the 2022 NFL Draft: The Starters

Late last summer, right before the start of the regular season, the Steelers acquired Ahkello Witherspoon in a trade with the Seahawks. Witherspoon was a third-round pick by the 49ers in the 2017 NFL Draft. Witherspoon started 33 games during his four years in San Francisco before signing a one-year deal with Seattle last spring. Witherspoon was barely a factor for the Steelers for the majority of the 2021 campaign, but he started to earn starting reps down the stretch as a replacement for James Pierre and was arguably the team’s best cornerback at the end of the season.

Ahkello Witherspoon agreed to terms on a two-year deal with the Steelers in March and figures to be one of the starting outside corners in 2022.

Speaking of free agents and two-year contracts, the Steelers signed Levi Wallace, formerly of the Bills, to a two-year deal at the beginning of free agency. Wallace, an undrafted free agent in the 2018 NFL Draft, became a full-time starter in Buffalo by his second season and remained in that role through 2021. Playing opposite the highly-decorated Tre’Davious White, Wallace was a solid number two corner for the Bills and figures best suited for that same role in Pittsburgh.

Cam Sutton, a third-round pick out of Tennessee in the 2017 NFL Draft, spent his first four seasons serving many roles in the secondary, playing on the outside, in the slot and even at safety. But Sutton finally got his break and promotion in 2021, in addition to a new contract, and became a full-time starter. Again, Sutton is extremely versatile but perhaps seems destined to start in the slot in 2022, with the re-signing of Witherspoon and the addition of Wallace.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Before the 2022 NFL Draft: The Backups

James Pierre, a 2020 undrafted free agent out of Florida Atlantic, struggled in 2021 after earning the most significant playing time of his short career.

After being selected in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft, Justin Layne has done very little to prove he even has what it takes to be a backup cornerback, let alone a starter.

Veteran Arthur Maulet, an undrafted free agent formerly of the Saints, Colts and Jets, made Pittsburgh’s roster last year and was a steady contributor in the slot.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

Rounding out the Steelers depth chart at cornerback are Linden Stephens and Isaiah Johnson.

Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Cornerback

When talking about the Steelers’ three starters, the consensus seems to be that they are all solid number two caliber corners.

That’s a good number, but is that enough, even with a consistent and dominant pass rush? When you factor in the underwhelming depth behind those top 3, I would categorize the Steelers’ draft need at cornerback as Moderate-High

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Cornering the Market? Steelers Resign Ahkello Witherspoon, to 2 Year Contract

Kevin Colbert may have struggled at drafting cornerbacks but he’s done a pretty good job at bringing them in from the outside. So its logical that when he finds a good one, he tries to keep him. And so it is with Ahkello Witherspoon whom the Steelers resigned to a two year contract.

Ahkello Witherspoon, Steelers vs Vikings, Steelers 2022 free agent priorities

Ahkello Witherspoon’s intercepts a pass. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Steelers traded for Ahkello Witherspoon just before the season’s start, and then sat him for the better part of the first half of the season.

However, an injury to Joe Haden and struggles by James Pierre led to Witherspoon joining the line up and once there he turned heads. As observed here in Witherspoon’s free agent profile:

Despite only playing in 9 games and making 3 starts, Ahkello Witherspoon led the team in interceptions and tied Cam Heyward for passes defensed.

He also brings something else back to Pittsburgh that’s vital at the cornerback position: Youth.

Like fellow starters, Cam Sutton and new arrival Levi Wallace, Ahkello Witherspoon will by 27 in 2022, which should put him right in his athletic prime. Terms of Witherspoon’s contract haven’t leaked yet.

If that’s the case its almost certain that Witherspoon tested the market and realized that grass wasn’t greener outside of Pittsburgh. With Witherspoon’s return is a welcome development, the Steelers decision to bring him back along with their signing of Levi Wallace almost certainly ends Joe Haden’s time in Pittsburgh.

Safety Second?

Pittsburgh’s aggressiveness in free agency this spring has been unprecedented. They’ve signed 3 offensive lineman, a defensive lineman and found an inside linebacker to pair with Devin Bush, while tendering two backups behind time.

  • Now they’ve signed 2 cornerbacks.

And that leaves a gaping hole at safety. No, really it does. If the season started today either Marcus Allen would need to move back to safety or the Steelers would need to start Tre Norwood there.

Yesterday social media had reports of Tyrann Mathieu coming to Pittsburgh, and fans clearly think that’s a good idea. Terrell Edmunds remains unsigned. Either way the Steelers need to make a move, or otherwise they’re committing themselves to picking a safety early in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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The Steelers Should Resign Joe Haden – But Only at the Right Price

Cornerback is one of the NFL’s most taxing positions to fill. So the Pittsburgh Steelers having sent cornerbacks Jack Butler, and Rod Woodson and Mel Blount to the Hall of Fame have a good track record there. Ike Taylor likely could have joined them, had he been able to hold on to interceptions (outside of his game changing pick in Super Bowl XL).

But since Taylor’s retirement the Steelers have struggled to fill their needs at cornerback, which is why they snapped up Joe Haden when the Browns cut him in August 2017.

The Steelers resigned Haden in 2019, and now that deal is up too. Will the Steelers extend his day in Pittsburgh even further?

Joe Haden, Joe Haden interception Patriots, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski

Joe Haden’s interception was the catch of the game. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Capsule Profile of Joe Haden’s Career with the Steelers

When Joe Haden arrived in Pittsburgh, he sustained an upswing in the Steelers defense that had begun a half season before. Haden started instantly and became an immediate leader in the locker room and in on the field.

While most people point to Ryan Shazier’s injury as the moment the Steelers defense dipped into decline, the truth is the trouble started with Joe Haden’s injury against the Colts that fall. Haden returned later that year and started for the next 3 seasons, logging 9 interceptions, defending 54 passes, forcing 2 fumbles and even dropping 11 ball carriers for losses.

  • Those statistics, while impressive don’t capture what Haden has meant to team.

To understand that look no further than the Steelers 2021 home win against the Titans, were on 4th and 6th with 0:27 at the Steelers 15, Joe Haden stoned Nick Westbrook-Ikhine for no gain sealing the Steelers win.

That one play is Joe Haden’s Steelers career in a nutshell. When the game is on the line, you can count on Joe Haden to make a play.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Joe Haden

1-9. That’s the Steelers record in games that Joe Haden has missed since 2018. Since Ike Taylor’s “Life’s Work” arrived the Steelers have tried finding corners on the waiver wire, rummaging in through the free agent bargain basement, making trades, drafting them late and developing them or drafting them early.

None of it has worked. The only thing that worked was bringing back departed free agents (see William Gay), and even that was sort of an accident.

Joe Haden changed all of that. His value to the team is clear and he wants to stay in Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Joe Haden

Cornerback is a young man’s game. Joe Haden will be 33 next year. 33 is not young in the NFL and is positively old in defensive back years. The Steelers have Cam Sutton and Ahkello Witherspoon came on strong late in the season.

  • Who are you going to spend your salary cap space on?

The 33 year old corner who missed 5 games last year? Or the 27 year old cornerback who had 2 interceptions in his second start and 3 picks in a five game span (oh, and he also tied for the team lead in passes defensed.)

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Joe Haden

Joe Haden wanted a contract extensions before the season and wasn’t happy when he didn’t get one. He even thanked “Pittsburg” before Ben Roethlisberger’s final game at Heinz Field, clearly communicating his impression of where he is headed.

Yet, Gerry Dulac of the Post-Gazette indicates that his sources are telling him that the door is open for Haden’s return.

  • It might be, but only at the right price.

The Steelers would be wise to prioritize signing Ahkello Witherspoon while letting Joe Haden test the market, to see who is ready to pony up for a 33-year-old corner. If no takers can be found, the Steeler would be wise to bring him back at a reasonable third contract, and allow him to serve as a 3rd corner.

He’d be a strong presence off of the bench and in the defensive backs room.

Follow Steelers free agency. Click here for our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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Fighting to the End: Chiefs Beat Steelers 42-21 in Ben Roethlisberger’s Finale, but Big Ben Gives It His All

The record will reflect that the Ben Roethlisberger Era ended with the Kansas City Chiefs 42-21 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Wild Card at Arrowhead Stadium on January 16th 2022.

  • Disappointing? Yes, absolutely. Surprising? Absolutely. Not.

IF the 2021 Steelers’ erratic nature led to eerie feelings about the franchise’s future, the Ben Roethlisberger era appeared destined to end on a bright note. The emotional farewell at Heinz Field against the Browns, the comeback win over the Ravens on the road and the surprise playoff slot all seemed to be building up to something.

The 2021 Steelers believed in themselves. JuJu Smith-Schuster came off of IR adding his momentum. Surely, even if the Steelers couldn’t upset the Chiefs, they’d take Kansas City to the wire, perhaps just falling short on the final play, Friday Night Lights fashion.

  • That didn’t happen.

That didn’t happen because as the game unfolded, it became clear that adrenaline and not belief was the Steelers secret weapon, and when the adrenaline wore off, the Chiefs’ superior talent took over. And it wasn’t pretty.

Ben Roethlisberger, Benny Snell, 2021 AFC Wild Card, Steelers vs Chiefs, Ben Roethlisberger final game

Ben Roethlisberger, fighting to the end. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Start with Intensity Worthy of a Playoff Team

Hines Ward once likened the difference in the intensity between the playoffs and the regular season to the difference between the regular and preseason. Things move faster. Hits get harder. Mistakes magnify.

  • While it will quickly be forgotten, the Steelers defense actually started this game strong.

On the Chiefs first series the Steelers forced a punt. Cam Sutton blew up a screen to Mecole Hardman for a loss and Tre Norwood followed by breaking up a pass to Travis Kelce. On the second series Chris Wormley broke up another pass headed Travis Kelce’s way, while Minkah Fitzpatrick stopped Byron Pringle a cold yard short of the 1st down marker, leading to another punt.

Really, if players like Wormley and Norwood could make plays in what Mike Tomlin calls “Situational football” alongside the likes of Minkah and the Cams, the Steelers’ defense could hang with the almighty Chiefs, right?

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Chiefs, AFC Wild Card Game, Ben Roethlisberger last game

T.J. Watt returns a fumble for a touchdown. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.

On the next series, the heavy hitters got into the act, with T.J. Watt tipping a pass which Devin Bush intercepted and returned 10 yards. Sure, the Steelers offense could only do what it had already done all night – punt.

But it didn’t matter. Tacho Charlton and Tre Norwood made key stops to force yet another Chiefs punt as the 1st quarter ended. As the second quarter began, the Steelers offense showed some shades of life – it advanced 20 yards before punting. The defense took its cue.

Cam Heyward forced a fumble which T.J. Watt recovered and returned 26 yards for a touchdown as the Steel Curtain seemed poised to rise….

Post Adrenaline Rush Hangover Hits Hard

…Alas, T.J. Watt’s touchdown didn’t signal the Steel Curtain’s rapture, but rather its swan song. Watt’s touchdown used up whatever opening quarter adrenaline the Steelers had left, and after that Patrick Mahomes owned the Steelers the rest of the way, and it wasn’t even close.

Mahomes answered with a touchdown drive, that included a 23-yard scramble and some devilishly clever trickery to use T.J. Watt’s aggressiveness against him. Less than a minute later he was at it again, this time taking the Chiefs into the Red Zone and scoring just under the two-minute mark.

  • After yet another Steelers’ one-minute drive, Mahomes was back at it again, and scoring again before the half.

Did the Kansas City Chiefs show that their offense is better than the Steeler defense during those final five minutes of the first half? Yes, it did, but during the same time span the Steelers’ offense showed it had no business being in the playoffs.

Diontae Johnson couldn’t hold on to a 2-yard pass on 3rd and 2. Ben Roethlisberger badly misfired on a deep pass to Chase Claypool. The two failed to connect another time deep, but it wasn’t clear whether the quarterback or wide out was at fault. Perhaps it was both.

One in 381….

One of the few bright spots of the Steelers’ 2021 offense has been Najee Harris. Except for a few games in October, Harris has been basically on his own, rushing the ball with no blocking support and getting hit in the backfield more often than not.

Despite that, he rushed for 1200 yards with a 3.9 yard-per-carry average that doesn’t even hint at how hard he had to work to earn those yards. He also caught 74 passes in the air, doing plenty of damage there.

So when the Chiefs opened the second half by taking took the half opening kickoff and driving 68 yards for yet another touchdown (this time on Nick Allegretti tackle eligible play) the safest player the Steelers could look to was Najee Harris.

  • Because not only is Harris the offense’s most talented player, he’s their most reliable one.

He touched the ball 381 times in the regular season without a single fumble. Ben Roethlisberger hit Harris with a pass to start the Steelers 2nd half possession, Willie Gay hit him, Harris fumbled, Frank Clark recovered for the Chiefs, and two plays later Tyreek Hill romped 31 yards for a touchdown.

Any chance the Steelers had of making a comeback ended then.

Roethlisberger Finishes Fighting to the End

Down 35-7 in a playoff game is a grim place to be. But you wouldn’t have known that by the way the Steeler offense responded. For whatever else you want to say about them, and you can say a lot, this group showed no quit.

Ben Roethlisberger last sack, Michael Danna, Steelers vs Chiefs, AFC Wild Card

Michael Danna earns the honor of making the final sack of Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Dilip Vishwanat, Getty Images via The Athletic.

Working in the no huddle, Ben Roethlisberger completed 7 straight passes to Claypool, Harris, Smith-Schuster and Pat Freiermuth before finding James Washington for a toe tapping, combat catch for a touchdown.

The Chiefs added another touchdown, and Roethlisberger responded again. This one featured some incompletions as well as an interception that was nullified by a roughing-the-passer call. It also saw Benny Snell make the most of his shot at garbage time glory. After converting a 4th and 2, Diontae Johnson caught another Roethlisberger pass for a touchdown.

The Steelers actually forced the Chiefs to punt thanks to a T.J. Watt sack, giving Ben Roethlisberger one last drive. He made the most of it, converting 3 third downs, taking advantage of the underneath routes to Benny Snell and Ray-Ray McCloud that the Chiefs were giving him.

Finally, with 11 seconds left to go and no time outs, Ben Roethlisberger hit Zach Gentry for an 11- yard pass that would see Gentry tackled 3 yards short of the goal, ending the game.

Ben Roethlisberger ended his career by giving his all to the very last second. What a fitting farewell.

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Playoff Bound! Steelers Beat Ravens 16-13 as Ben Roethlisberger Leads Overtime Comeback

Last week’s Steelers win over the Browns was perfect. After such an emotional, dramatic close to Ben Roethlisberger’s career at Heinz Field, one wondered whether the Steelers had left it all on the field, whether the season finale would be anything more than disappointing denouement.

  • Oh, but underestimate these 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers at your peril.

The Steelers not only had “something” left to take to Baltimore, but they topped the Browns game for drama with a 4th quarter comeback and an 16-13 overtime win over the Baltimore Ravens.

How did the Steelers pull this off? Because, as Mike Tomlin describes Ben Roethlisberger is “…The same when everyone else gets funny.”

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger final regular season game

Ben Roethlisberger fades back. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Slow Starting Steelers Hold True to Form

If it’s the Steelers vs the Ravens you know the game will be won and lost either the trenches or by the team that creates its own opportunity with a big play. The close to the 2021 season was no exception. After a bobbled snap,  a strip by T.J. Watt and a recovery by Henry Mondeaux the Steelers had a chance to prove both points.

A quick pass to Zach Gentry, followed by two strong runs from Benny Snell and another catch by Diontae Johnson gave the Steelers a 4th and 1 on the Ravens five. Mike Tomlin opted to go for it, but an illegal procedure  penalty robbed Pittsburgh of a shot at imposing its will.

The Steelers offense couldn’t do much for the rest of the first half, as the Ravens answered Terrell Edmunds interception with one of their own, but the Steelers defense held, followed by 7 straight series that resulted in an exchange of punts.

  • But Pittsburgh’s tenacity in the trenches would pay off.

The Ravens reached the Red Zone, but a Cam Heyward sack resulted in a personal foul, bringing Baltimore to the 3. T.J. Watt struck next, with an NFL record tying sack of Tyler Huntley, and the Steelers DBs did the rest, forcing Baltimore to settle for a field goal.

That four point differential would come in handy later on….

Run Defense? What Run Defense?

One has to wonder why any offensive coordinator would do anything other than call run plays against the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers. Baltimore got the message at half time, as it only took them 5 plays to put Latavius Murray in position to rip off a 45 yard touchdown run.

  • Yes, Steelers Nation. We have seen this movie before. Too. Many. Times.

The Steelers answered with a field goal, but Baltimore held the lead. Two series later the Ravens circled in on making Pittsburgh pay for settling for a simple field goal. Latavius Murray gouged them for runs of 22 and 27 yards on consecutive plays. Sticking with what was working, Murray ran for 3 and then 6 yards bring up 3rd and 1 at the Steelers 17 yard line. The first down and eventual touchdown appeared to be formalities.

  • By Henry Mondeaux and Miles Killebrew stuffed Mark Andrews for no gain.

Cam Sutton, Mark Andrews, Steelers vs Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger final regular season game

Cam Sutton intercepts a pass to Mark Andrews. Photo Credit: Ravens.com

The Ravens went for it on 4th. This time Huntley ran it, and got 2 yards. Williams added another 4. Then, John Harbaugh opted to take to the air. Tyler Huntely threw a lazy pass towards Mark Andrews. Cam Sutton read it all the way and picked it off.

In two Red Zone situations, the Steelers defense had knocked 11 points off the Ravens board. They were creating their own opportunities.

A Patented Ben Roethlisberger 4th Quarter Comeback

Ben Roethlisberger went to work. He completed 5 straight passes with Benny Snell taking the last one 24 yards into the Red Zone. But a face mask penalty drove the Steelers back 15 yards, and two plays later, the Steelers punted.

But Roethlisberger was just getting warmed up, and the Steelers defense had come alive. Baltimore tried to kill the clock by shoving it down the Steelers throat, but Joe Schobert, Arthur Maulet and Cam Heyward each came up with critical stops.

Ben Roethlisberger would throw 9 passes over the next 5 minutes and 13 seconds, converting 2 third downs along the way before connecting with Chase Claypool from the six yard line to put Pittsburgh ahead with 3:54 remaining.

Three minutes and fifty four seconds is a long time in football, and even longer when your opponent has Justin Tucker. The Ravens tied the game, and the Steelers moved the ball.

  • But on 3rd and short Pat Freiermuth came up just short of the first down. Pittsburgh punted.

Tyler Huntley connected with Mark Andrews for 12 yards before throwing 3 straight incompletions. A punt and a kneel down later and the Steelers and Ravens were in overtime.

Overtime Atonement

The Ravens won the toss, got the ball. They earned a 1st down before Cameron Heyward stoned Murray for a one yard gain, leading to 2 Huntley incompletions. It was time for Ben Roethlisberger to do what he has done best for 18 years:

  • Author a game winning drive at the gun.

 

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger final regular season

Najee Harris starts overtime with 1 handed catch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

Najee Harris set the tone on 1st down by transforming a seemingly broken play by making a one handed catch – with his left hand, and rushing it 11 yards.

Or 3rd and 7, Ben Roethlisberger gunned it to Pat Freiermuth who got the 1st down a 7 more yards. On 3rd and 9, Roethlisberger found Diontae Johnson, who made an 11 yard catch. On 4th and 8 Roethlisberger wanted to hit Freiermuth again, but had to target to Ray-Ray McCloud. McCloud had missed a 3rd down conversion before.

  • This time Ray-Ray McCloud made good, gaining 11 yards.

The Steelers had the ball at the Raven’s 31. 48 yards is in Chris Boswell’s range, but in January, in the rain? In the end, it didn’t matter. Najee Harris, carrying the ball in his left arm, ripped off a 15 yard gain to put the ball at the 16.

  • Roethlisberger closed his chapter at M&T Bank just as he’d closed it at Heinz Field – he took a knee.

One play later, the Chris Boswell knocked in a 36 yard field goal. Thanks to major upset by the Jacksonville Jaguars, and a win by the Las Vegas Raiders the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers were going to the playoffs!

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Vikings: Follow the Right Leader Edition

Taken from the grade book of a disappointed teacher who hopes his students learn from this by following the right leader, here is the Steelers Report Card for the Thursday Night Football failed comeback against the Vikings.

Dalvin Cook, Terrell Edmunds, Joe Schobert, Vikings vs Steelers

Not good when your safety and inside linebacker are looking at the running back’s number…. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger took some vicious hits and endured high, erratic snaps to lead a rally that put 28 points on the board in 17 minutes. In doing so he went 28 of 40 for 3 touchdowns and one interception for 308 yards. His final pass was perhaps one of the best he’s ever thrown. Grade: A

Running Backs
Early on their was so little room to run that Troy Aikman credited Najee Harris with the “best 3 yard run in history.” But Harris was excellent on the night, going 94 yards on 20 carries and catching two 3 passes, while running and catching a touchdown. Benny Snell had one carry for -2 yards. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught 2 passes for 32 yards plus a two point conversion, but dropped an incredibly difficult one on the game’s final play. The tight ends could do more in the blocking game. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson bailed on a throw that got intercepted. But he atoned by catching a field-flipping 37 yard pass. Later, he had incredible presence of mind to get out of bounds to set up the final throw. Such efforts were necessary due to his counter part. Chase Claypool’s taunting penalty was bad. The catches he made on the final drive were fantastic. But his post-4th down conversion pose was inexcusable, costing the Steelers at least 1 play. Ray-Ray McCloud caught 6 of 8 balls thrown to him. Grade: C+

Offensive Line
Yes, the line protected Ben better in the second half. Yes, it opened up hole in the running game. But pass protection the Steelers suffered in the first half hasn’t been so bad, since… The Steelers loss to the Vikings in London. Better play in garbage time neither excuses nor negates the offensive line getting manhandled during the game’s first 40 minutes. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward played well, everyone else did not. Grade: F

Linebackers
Dalvin Cook ran for 205 yards on 27 carries averaging 7.6 yards per pop; with a separated shoulder. Alexander Mattison averaged 4.5 yards per carry. Kirk Cousins converted a key 3rd down running. Unacceptable. Grade: F

Secondary
Believe it or not, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds actually stopped Cook from doing even more damage and Minkah came up big on several third downs. Cam Sutton got burned on the Vikings last touchdown pass. Ahkello Witherspoon had two interceptions and knocked away 3 passes. Grade: B-

Special Teams
Chris Boswell’s missed extra point might be a footnote, but it is a footnote that put the Steelers in the position of needing two-point conversions to get ahead once something got going. Pressley Harvin III had a few OK punts, but laid several eggs. Kick coverage was OK as were Ray-Ray McCloud’s returns. Special teams could have been a positive difference. It wasn’t. Grade: D

Coaching
Getting a team ready to play on the road on Thursday night is hard. It is even harder after an intense, emotional win over a division rival. And it says here that the Steeler core problems lie with talent, rather than coaching or schemes.

  • But it is also clear that Pittsburgh was not prepared to face the Minnesota Vikings.

Not even close. Matt Canada’s offense was steamrolled by the Vikings defense for the game’s first 40 minutes or so. They punted 5 times and turned over the ball before putting a single point on the board.

  • Pittsburgh’s run defense is a picture of pure disaster.

At first, efforts against the run were erratic. Then teams exploited them a little more. Then that exploitation became systematic. Against the Vikings it became choric as Dalvin Cook ran like some combination of Barry Sanders, Jim Brown and Walter Payton in their primes.

Yes, the Steelers defense made key stops in the 2nd half, but as Mike Tomlin acknowledged, that is easier to do against a team has a 29 point lead.

James Washington, Steelers vs Vikings

James Washington catches a bomb. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers showed a lot of heart in the second half rally. But we can’t and won’t credit to coaches for that. The men were responding to Ben Roethlisberger’s leadership, and it is up to the coaches to ensure they follow his example, and not that of the Chase Claypools on the team. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
This man’s season and in fact entire Steelers career has been a bit of a disappointment. But if you look at the Steelers rally, it started with a 29 yard pass that bring Pittsburgh into Minnesota territory. Then he drew a taunting penalty in a 2 yard loss. Then the player had an 8 yard pass that set the Steelers up at the 2. Later he caught a 30 yard touchdown pass. And for those efforts, James Washington win Unsung Hero honors for the loss to Minnesota.

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Steelers 2021 Thanksgiving Honors: Cam Heyward Wins a Second Time

Thanksgiving 2021 has arrived so it’s time to award this year’s Steel Curtain Risings Steelers Thanksgiving Honors. To understand our what crystalized our choice, let’s return to the tail, tail end of the Steelers tie against the Lions.

On 3rd and goal with 20 seconds remaining all that separated the Detroit Lions from a touchdown going into half time was 8 yards. Here’s the Pro Football Reference stat line for what happened next:

A curious choice for a stat to highlight, especially given Cam Heyward’s twin sacks in 3rd down in the 4th quarter and then again in overtime? Maybe. Not.

It wasn’t the tackle that Heyward made, although his save a touchdown and force a field goal, it was the way that Cam Heyward made the tackle. He wrapped Swift at the 2-yard line and tossed him back like a rag doll a good 3 or 4 yards.

Cam Heyward, Cameron Heyward, Steelers 2021 Thanksgiving Honors, Steelers vs Chargers

Cam Heyward Steelers 2021 Thanksgiving Honors winner. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Those kinds of plays are all about attitude. In a goal line situation is the defense’s way of channeling their inner Gandalf the Grey saying, “You SHALL Not Pass!” Those are the kind of plays that define a good defense, and it is with that style an attitude that Cameron Heyward has defined himself as a Pittsburgh Steeler.

Normally, we’d look to bestow the award on someone new. But Cam Heyward’s play in 2021 has been nothing short of phenomenal.

The Steelers defensive line is hurting. Stephon Tuitt has yet to play a game or even take a snap on practice. Tyson Alualu was lost, likely for the season, in week 2. Cameron Heyward is responding like any true champion: He’s stepping it up.

He already has 4.5 sacks on the season, one more than his 2020 total. He’s dropped 7 players for losses, equaling his 2020 total. He’s hit quarterbacks 10 times. His batted down 7 balls – doubling his 2020 total. And he’s forced and recovered a fumble and has an interception to his credit.

  • All with 7 games to go.

But like with his tackle of D’Andre Swift, it isn’t what he’s doing, is the way he’s doing it and when he’s doing it.

  • Throughout this season of barn burners, Cameron Heyward is consistently making big plays at big moments.

Case in point: This article was drafted on Sunday, before the Chargers game. In that contest Cam Heyward “only” had two tackles and one pass defensed. What those numbers don’t show is that he ran down Justin Herbert on a 36 yard run and kept him out of the end zone. Then, 5 defensive plays later he batted away a pass, which Cam Sutton picked off, setting up Ben Roethlisberger’s tying touchdown to Pat Freiermuth.

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Garrett Gilbert, Steelers vs Cowbosy

Cam Heyward after sacking Garrett Gilbert. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

You think Art Rooney II knew what he was doing at the tail end of training camp in 2020 when he essentially told Omar Khan and Kevin Colbert to get Cam Heyward signed, damn the salary cap consequences?

You only need to register a pulse to know that Cameron Heyward has been a good player since the Steelers drafted him. But during 2021 he’s taken it a step further.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, with Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White, Ernie Holmes, and Aaron Smith yield nothing to any other franchise in terms defensive line legacy.

  • During 2021 Cam Heyward has once again proven he belongs in that elite group of excellent players.

And for that, for his leadership in the locker room and in the community of Pittsburgh, Cameron Heyward wins Steelers 2021 Thanksgiving Honors.

Steelers Thanksgiving Honors Explained

Steelers Thanksgiving honors is a tradition that began here on Steel Curtain Rising in 2009. The idea was to pick a player or member of the Steelers organization who gave Steelers fans reason to give thanks.

Football, while important to all of us isn’t and shouldn’t be our top priorities – that should be family and friends. So the hope here is that everyone reading this has reason to give thanks for the people in their lives.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Chargers: Few A’s for Effort Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher impressed by his students enthusiasm in the face of adversity but nonetheless not inclined to give many “A’s” for effort, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2021 loss to the Chargers.

Chase Claypool, Asante Samuel, Steelers vs Chargers

Asante Samuel Jr. shuts down Chase Claypool. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Quarterback
It happened again. Ben Roethlisberger missed the entire week on the COVID-19 list, cleared protocols, flew out on a private jet, and promptly played his best game of the season going 28-44-278 with 3 touchdowns and ZERO interceptions. If this were a series or movie franchise we’d have to admonish the writers for recycling plot lines. But its not so instead we’ll admonish any Steelers fan who doesn’t fully appreciate just how special Ben is. Grade: A-

Running Backs
Not a good day for the running game, but the Chargers scoring on their first 5 posessions had a lot to do with that. Najee Harris looked good, given his blocking, but never found a grove but he did find the end zone in earning 39 yards on 12 carries. Benny Snell and Kalen Ballage were respectable in spot duty. Grade: C+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth and Eric Ebron both caught touchdowns and Zach Gentry made some good blocks. The Steelers tight ends did what was asked of them in the running game, but they’re going ot need to do more as run blockers if this offense is to sustain any momentum. Grade: C

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson authored what may have been his finest game as a professional, only falling a few plays short of a dominant performance. He caught 7 passes for 107 yards an a touchdown. Chase Claypool had an “on” night one in what has been an on-and-off season catching 5 passes for 93 yards including a field flipper that set up a score. Ray-Ray McCloud and James Washington had 2 catches for 12 yards. Both Claypool and McCloud ran a few reverses, but made little headway. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
Rushing room was spare – although the Steelers were in catch up mode most of the night. And although Ben Roethlisberger was hit 6 times, he generally had time to throw. Except on the final drive when the offensive line gave up consecutive sacks. Grade: F

Defensive Line
With the injuries to T.J. Watt it was clear that the Steelers defensive line was going to need to step up and it is equally clear that they were not up to the task. Except of course for Cam Heyward who deflected a pass and ran down a ball carrier from about 30 yards downfield. Grade: D

Linebackers
The story of the game was Justin Herbert breaking off and gouging the Steelers. Which shows that the Steelers weren’t able to neither pressure him nor contain him. That’s on the linebackers as much as the defensive line. Taco Charlton was drafted 2 slots earlier, but people still aren’t forgetting he’s not T.J. Watt. Grade: D

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton interception Chargers, Steelers vs Chargers

Cam Sutton intercepts the ball. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Secondary
That Herbert had to run so many times indicates that he couldn’t find anyone open. And the Chargers were only 7-12 on third downs, a surprising stat. Cam Sutton also delivered what should have been a game-changing interception. Still “no one” had Mike Williams on his 53 yard touchdown pass which cost the Steelers the game. Grade: C-

Special Teams
Ray-Ray McCloud had a few nice punt kick returns and the Steelers punt return coverage was excellent, stopping the Chargers lone attempt for a loss. Chris Boswell was 3-3. And Miles Killebrew’s blocked punt should have been a game changer. Grade: A

Coaching
While it is tempting to point the finger at Matt Canada for only calling 18 runs against the NFL’s worst rushing defense, the Steelers defense simply could NOT stop the Chargers from scoring. The time to rollout a clock-control game is NOT when you’re down 14 points by the first time you touch the ball in the 2nd half.

  • Canada’s offense put 37 points on the board including converting 2 turnovers into touchdowns.

The Steelers defense had one of their worst nights in memory. In his press conference, Mike Tomlin doubled down on taking blame for the breakdowns of schematics. Honestly, there is probably something to that.

Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Chargers

Diontae Johnson runs for daylight. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

But no amount of scheming can replace the playmaking ability for T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick or Joe Haden for that matter.

The Steelers were down 17 points the just over 18 minutes left to go, but they continued fighting until the very final gun and almost pulled off a comeback. That reflects well on both them, their coach and the entire organization. Grade: C

Unsung Hero Award
When team leader goes down those who he leads need to step up, and during the game this player had two sacks, both coming in critical situations, both of which helped keep the game from slipping away from the Steelers and for that Alex Highsmith wins the Unsung Hero Award.

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Steelers Sign Melvin Ingram, Shoring Up Depth at Outside Linebacker

On the eve of training camp the Steelers moved to shore up a major weakness on their depth chart by signing free agent outside linebacker Melvin Ingram.

  • The Steelers signed Ingram to a 1 year deal for an as yet to be disclosed figure.

Coming out of South Carolina, the San Diego Chargers drafted Melvin Ingram with the 18th pick in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft. The Chargers sent Ingram’s name to the podium six picks before the Steelers selected David DeCastro, and ironically it is DeCastro’s departure that paved the way for the signing.

At outside linebacker the Steelers have T.J. Watt, whom they’re looking to lock down to a long term deal, and 2nd year player Alex Highsmith. During free agency Pittsburgh lost Bud Dupree and Olasunkanmi Adeniyi leaving them with journey man Cassius Marsh and 6th round draft pick Quincy Roche.

Melvin Ingram, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Chargers

Melvin Ingram tackles Le’Veon Bell in 2015. Photo Credit: Donald Miralle, Getty Images, via Zimbo

Who is Melvin Ingram?

Melvin Ingram is a 3 time Pro Bowler and has played his entire career for the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers. During that time he has started 96 games and participated in 113 games. His resume includes two 10.5 sack seasons and has made a total of 49 sacks in his career.

He has also logged 3 interceptions forced 14 fumbles and made 70 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Injuries limited Ingram in his 2nd and 3rd years in the league, but then he remained relatively healthy starting 16 games for 4 straight seasons, until missing 3 games in 2019.

A knee injury landed Ingram on the injured reserve list twice in 2020 and it was his least productive of his career.

Like Trai Turner, the guard the Steelers signed to replace David DeCastro, Ingram was looking for a job for a reason. However, he gives the Steelers experienced depth where they need it the most.

Defensive Back Next? Doubtful

If outside linebacker was unquestionably the Steelers thinnest slot of the depth chart, cornerback was second. The Steelers have Joe Haden and Cameron Sutton, but after that they’re limited to James Pierre and Justin Layne.

While the Steelers could use a boost of either quantity or quality at cornerback, the only way they’re likely to get one is via the waiver wire.

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NFL Draft 2021: Is Cornerback Back as a Steelers Need?

Steel Curtain Rising has been doing the Steelers Draft Needs Matrix for the better part of the last decade.

  • A year ago something new, and dare we say exciting, happened.

In previous years, cornerback would invariably stand out as a top Steelers need. But last year was different. Last year we went as far as to rate Pittsburgh’s need at cornerback as Low-Moderate. Can history repeat itself in 2021? Time to find out.

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton interception, Steelers vs Bills

Cam Sutton intercepts Josh Allen. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Before the 2021 NFL Draft: The Starters

The Steelers may not draft cornerbacks very well (see Artie Burns.) Nor can they keep them healthy (see Senquez Golson, and Cortez Allen after a fashion.) Nor do they seem to have a knack for trading for them (See Brandon Boykin and/or Justin Gilbert.

  • But they do seem to transform other team’s trash into Pittsburgh’s treasure.

Such is the case with Joe Haden, whom the Steelers swooped up after Cleveland Browns cut in him 2017. Pittsburgh hasn’t looked back since, as Joe Haden started 56 games, hauled in 10 interceptions (or 3 fewer than Ike Taylor’s career total), taken home a pick six, and batted away 48 passes.

Joe Haden will be 32 next year and may be slowing a step, but the Steelers made clear how much they valued him when they opted to cut Steven Nelson who started alongside him.

In his place, Pittsburgh will start Cam Sutton. Cam Sutton was the Steelers 3rd round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft who, as fate would have it, saw his first action in the 2017 road game against Cincinnati where Ryan Shazier’s career ended. Since the Sutton had developed slowly, but steadily.

He’s logged 3 interceptions during his first four years, and started 6 games in 2020 and his forced fumble was one of the lone bright spots in a remarkably ugly loss to the Bills.

  • In today’s NFL the slot corner is essentially a starter.

The Steelers don’t have one as Mike Hilton signed with the Bengals as a free agent after manning the positon for 4 years.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Before the 2021 NFL Draft: The Backups

One of the Steelers two backups at cornerback will occupy the role of the slot corner. That player will be expected to slide over to the edge while Cameron Sutton moves over to the slot on third down just as Deshea Townsend did.

James Pierre made the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent during 2020 training camp, and appeared in all 16 games, including 12% of the defensive snaps in the Steelers Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff loss to the Browns.

  • James Pierre’s playing time came at the expense of Justin Layne.

Justin Layne was the Steelers 3rd round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, who was drafted on “measurable” as opposed to pedigree. Layne began at wide receiver and transitioned over to cornerback late during his time with the Michigan State Spartans.

He appeared in 10 games as a rookie and all 16 games during the regular season. But tellingly, the coaches after getting 26% of the defensive snaps in the regular season road loss to the Browns, coaches looked to Pierre over Layne for the playoffs. Justin Layne was of course arrested last week.

The Steelers also have free agent Trevor Williams, a five year veteran with 27 starts and 41 games under his belt from his time with the Chargers, Cardinals and most recently the Eagles. The Steelers also have first year veteran Stephen Denmark on their roster.

Steelers 2021 Draft Needs @ Cornerback

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftWhen the news broke of Justin Layne’s legal troubles, my reaction was, “Better now than after the draft.” Over at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Tim Benz opined that Layne’s judicial woes probably won’t change the Steelers plans.

  • Benz may be right.

With Trever Williams the Steelers brought in some experience to supplement the youthful potential they have at cornerback, which is a wise move. But right now the Steelers have an aging quality corner on one side and a probably up-and-comer on the other side with little behind them.

Which is to say the Steelers need depth and/or a possible future starter, so their need at cornerback heading into the 2021 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate-High.

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